August 23rd, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the observance of the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its Abolition by member states of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This day is significant for people of African descent because it reminds the world of the terror of the trans-Atlantic slave trade otherwise known as the Great Maafa,while simultaneously celebrating freedom fighters who died rebelling against racists colonial ambitions to build a world on the backs of African people. The date for this observance ties back to August 22nd and 23rd in 1791 when the Haitian people revolted against the French, which led to their historic liberation of the island led by enslaved Africans and therefore it is only fitting that this observance be on this day.
Sadly enough, only a handful of institutions of higher education in America observe this day or take the time to teach about the institution of slavery and its impact around the world even today. Make no mistake the issue of slavery is still haunting higher education even now, and one only has to look at the headlines to make the connections. For example, stories that focus on college campuses that have buildings named after slaveholders, the removal of Confederate monuments on campuses, and the profiteering of enslaved labor that is directly responsible for some institutions wealth are all examples of the vestiges of slavery.
Understanding slavery helps to contextualize its historical and contemporary impact. The political economy of slavery helps explain the vast income gap between White and Black people. The systems of punishment in slavery are almost identical to the mass incarceration that we witness today as articulated in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. The scholarship around posttraumatic slave syndrome by Dr. Joy Degruy helps us to explain and explore issues relating to internalized oppression, anger, and what she coins as the “vacant esteem” in Black communities. Studying slavery helps us to understand the African diaspora and the vital work of Pan-Africanism towards relegating African people together for healing, justice, and self-determination.
Honoring the freedom fighters who died keeps their memories alive and honors their work. When one looks at other countries like Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, and even Cuba, there are monuments honoring enslaved Africans who fought and sometimes won their freedom from Europeans. Juxtapose to America, and there are very few monuments, artifacts, or recognized places outside of museums that celebrate leaders like Nat Turner, Jemmy, or Harriet Tubman. An essential argument for the reparation movement was not only compensation for the heinous act of slavery, but also to legitimize the enslaved insurrectionists who sought to destroy the system of slavery by having the government admitt that slavery was wrong.
The consequences of not acknowledging, discussing, and studying slavery and the abolitionists have a dire impact on students and society as a whole. Without understanding the institution of slavery, one can easily misconstrue the economic success of America due to only innovation, industry, and hard work as opposed to almost three hundred years of free labor. Most children Black or White grow up believing that the ancestors of African-Americans were slaves and not enslaved, which is a powerful distinction which humanizes the later and dehumanizes the former. Students could also grow to believe that these enslaved women and men were docile and did not fight back consistently throughout their time in chains.
This observance is conveniently celebrated in what some in the Black radical tradition calls Black August., which initially started out as an observance in remembrance of political prisoners George Jackson, Jonathon Jackson, James McClain, and Khatari Gaulden, who died attempting a prison break. The entire month of August is a celebration that is implicitly and explicitly Pan-African in its approach towards acknowledging leaders such as Assata Shakur, Marcus Garvey, Toussaint Overture, W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Highland Garnett, Queen Mother Moore, and Fred Hampton. Unlike Black history month in February, Black August centers its observance on revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and rebels. Unfortunately, most of these individuals are not taught about, studied, or acknowledged in K-12 and higher education.
In 2017, the Trump administration decided to withdraw the U.S. from UNESCO to become a “non-member observer state”. UNESCO and the United States has had a complicated relationship for decades for various reasons and the official breakup was predictable with the current administration. The irony of this international day of observance is that the one country that arguably benefited the most from the transatlantic slave trade will not take any part in educating its populace on its most odious act against African people in the Americas.
International and national observations are essential because it keeps in living memory events that are important to remember about the past. Marking our calendars annually as institutions of higher education, communities and individuals to reflect on the institution of slavery and those who died fighting against it is an imperative now and in the future. The historical amnesia about slavery that most people have must be remedied in order to have any serious conversation about race in this country. Therefore, I challenge student organizations, student affairs professionals, and administrators to take an opportunity to observe this day and have serious discussions on campus about slavery and those who died to end it.
Dr. Joseph L. Jones is Special Assistant to the President and associate professor of Political Science at Philander Smith College. You can follow him on Twitter @drjosephljones.